Editorial: We need a new way to think about prison

Last modified: 12/7/2014 12:09:01 AM
The new women’s prison under construction in Concord is sorely needed and long overdue. But if, as state corrections officials fear, it will be over capacity on the day it opens, New Hampshire’s Legislature and justice system will have failed. The state’s goal between now and when the prison opens late in 2016 should be to reform the sentencing and penal systems, shrink the prison population, and take New Hampshire out of the spinning squirrel cage the justice system became decades ago.

Corrections experts, from judges to veteran commissioner Bill Wrenn and former House speaker Donna Sytek, now chair of the state’s adult parole board, on down to prison guards know the current system doesn’t work. It’s a revolving door through which thousands of people, many of them with a mental illness, drug addiction or both, cycle through time and time again. They do so for want of adequate treatment and help turning their lives around, both inside and outside prison and jail.

There are better ways. Models exist, including one right here in New Hampshire. It’s the TRAILS (Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills) program put in place several years ago by then Sullivan County officials and its corrections superintendent Ross Cunningham.

Not long after Cunningham took the job, consultants told Sullivan County that it needed to build a new $45 million jail. The recidivism rate, given that some 80 percent of its inmates had a substance abuse problem that went untreated, was roughly 40 percent. Cut that rate by sending minor, non-violent offenders to treatment programs instead of to jail and a bigger jail would be unnecessary. For a fraction of a new building’s cost, Sullivan County built a community corrections center. The center offers mental health and substance abuse treatment, help finding jobs and housing, classes in parenting, managing money, decision making and other skills to inmates. Fail in the program and inmates go to jail until they’re deemed ready try again to change their behavior.

The program is too new to have solid data, but so far, the county’s recidivism rate appears to have been cut in half. It was just 14 percent for the first 165 participants in the TRAILS program. Better yet, instead of wasting away behind bars and perhaps learning new and worse behaviors, inmates got the help they needed to turn their lives around while remaining in the community and holding jobs.

The impact of community corrections programs extends far beyond the inmate. Kevin Warwick, a corrections consultant who worked with the county, told the New Hampshire Bar News that 131 children were affected by the participation of 140 of the center’s inmates. Add spouses and other family members and the impact multiplies. Recognizing that, the program counsels families as well as inmates.

The vast majority of the women who will soon be housed in the new prison are not hardened criminals. They are moms with a mental illness, addicts who drove their boyfriends getaway car, or stole to support their drug habit. Yet their recidivism rate is higher than the rate for men.

The building of the new women’s prison should be part of an experiment in prison reform, an experiment that should quickly spread to include the 2,700 or so men in prison.

New Hampshire can’t save money and build a safer society with bricks and steel. It can with programs to treat mental illness and addiction and teach people the impulse control, anger management, parenting and job skills that they need to lead successful, law-abiding lives.




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